Monday, July 13, 2015

Familiar Suffering

"Desert Wilderness"

The Judean Desert in the hills outside Jerusalem is very similar to the desert terrain where I live here in Southern California; and so, since many of the stories found in the Hebrew, Christian as well as in the Islamic scriptures originate in a desert setting, every time I walk outdoors I am continually reminded of “Bible Stories.”

The other day as I looked out into the vast expanse of seemingly endless wilderness not far from my house, I called to mind the familiar story of the “exodus” found in the Hebrew Bible. On the surface it is a story about the Jewish People who have been freed from their many years of slavery and domination in the land of Egypt. In the story, the now-freed slaves are on their way to the Promised Land, a new country God has give them for their new nation; but before they can reach this Promised Land they must first travel through a desert (a wilderness area very similar to the terrain just outside my house). Their desert journey is not easy, the terrain is dry and rocky, the sun is hot and their wilderness travels last for almost 40 years.

While it may seem like the people wander aimlessly on their way to the Promised Land,  they actually have been given some very clear direction. God tells them that while there may be no maps or roads, if they put their trust in God and take good care of one another along the way, they will safely make it to their destination.

Many people today are quite familiar with the exodus story – it’s a tale told in temples, churches and schools, even a story told in Hollywood movies.  There is, however, one aspect of this story that is often left unspoken when it is recounted.

The truth is that a whole bunch of those freed slaves decided that the journey in the wilderness was just too hard, the travel was too rough, the way ahead wasn’t all that clear, there were way too many questions and not enough answers and so many decided to pack up their families and go back to the servitude of slavery in Egypt.

Oddly enough they decided to return to their familiar suffering, return to their daily beatings and humiliation - at least they knew where their next meal was coming from and this was familiar territory

Like all stories in the scriptures, the tale of the “wandering in the wilderness” is far more than a historical retelling about freed Hebrew slaves making their way to the land of Israel thousands of years ago. It is a story about our common human condition- a story about how all of us may prefer suffering to freedom.  After all, freedom can be a burden and most of us want answers in life way more than we want to live with questions.

This reminds me of something Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote about our common humanity:

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.
Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.

I find great wisdom in this observation. For the most part, many if not most of us understand what causes the suffering we experience in life – I’m  not talking about physical pain or disease, I’m talking about that deeper “existential” angst, the pain of isolation and emptiness that happens when we feed a bloated ego and ignore the needs of others. At some level we all know that holding grudges against others causes us pain. At some level we all know that anger and hatreds eat away at us. At some level we know that clinging to our stuff in life and always wanting more makes us feel isolated.

At some level we all “get” that exodus story - we know that we will never make it to the Promised Land” by traveling alone, and unless we take good care of one another we cannot reach our destination. Yet we also can identify with those freed slaves who retuned to Egypt.

Rather than venturing into the unfamiliar territory of making changes in our lives,  there are times when we also might choose to cling to the pain and stay with the suffering that is familiar. So, we stay with the same old patterns and routines that we know cause us to suffer and keep us in bondage- living a life cluttered with past regrets and animosities, bloated up with all our things, living lives that ignore the needs of others as we plot and plan our schemes and advance our personal ambitions.

I look out onto the desert wilderness on this beginning of a new day and a new week, and I ask myself the question, “Am I willing to embrace the freedom offered to me, or will I spend yet another week living with a familiar suffering?”

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